Book Review: Tuesday Nights in 1980

Thursday 7 January 2016 by

Tuesday Nights in 1980, Molly Prentiss, Book, Reading, Penguin, Hamish HamiltonTuesday Nights in 1980 by Molly Prentiss

Published by Hamish Hamilton

Publishing May 2016

A dazzling literary debut about three lives colliding in 80s downtown New York. On the eve of 1980, downtown New York is the centre of the universe. Here are the artistes and the socialites, the dealers, collectors, bartenders, freaks, party-goers and hangers-on-all looking to make it in the big city, teetering on the brink of selling out, searching for something to save them.

Among them is painter Raul Engales, in exile from Argentina’s Dirty War and his own past. Fresh on the downtown scene and posing as an art student, he has just caught the eye of New York’s most infamous art critic: James Bennett.

James has synaesthesia, experiencing life and art in wild, magical ways. He sees pictures as starbursts and fireworks, smells citrus when he says ‘mother’, and hears songs when he looks at sculptures. Art is James’ gateway to endless new sensations, the secret to his success. In this city, his name is a byword for good taste – until the day his gift deserts him.

And then there’s Lucy: Raul’s eager blonde muse. Newly escaped from the suburban nothingness of Idaho, impossibly young and still untouched by urban ennui, she is drawn like a firefly to the electric brilliance of the city – and especially to its artists. Lucy will become first Raul’s lover and then – foolishly, inevitably – James’.

Over the course of one year, these three lives collide and remake each other. A brand new decade has just begun and New York is a crucible brimming with the energy of a million secret metamorphoses, poised to spill forth art, destruction and life itself into the waiting world.

~*~

As part of my new excitement with my Kobo, I had to sign up to Netgalley for reviews, and one of the first I got was Tuesday Nights in 1980. This is one of the more hotly anticipated books for 2016, so make sure you take note now.

The book tells the story of Raul Engales, James Bennett, and Lucy and how, in 1980, their lives become inextricably linked. Engales is a struggling Argentinian artist, James is an art critic with intense synaesthesia, and Lucy is the small-town girl trying to find her way in a confused and riotous New York.

There are several recurring themes throughout – the theme of Tuesdays (everything happens on a Tuesday) and colours. James’ synaesthesia is a strong thread throughout – the bright colours (his wife is red, Engales is blue and Lucy is yellow) add waves of sensation to the novel. It travels the line between drama and darkness, without much forgiveness for its characters, none of whom are particularly likeable all the time. The cast is wider than the three main protagonists, and each one is a startling sparkle each time.

The plot itself follows Engales’ rise to fame, or attempts to, crisscross the novel. They go from Argentina to a squat of artists to Lucy and James and a fateful New Year’s Eve party, from rehab clinics to art sales to cigarette vendors. New York unfurls before you throughout the pages – filthy and frightening, bombastic and ambitious… heartbreakingly beautiful.

But this is not a love story to New York. It is a love story by far to art – specifically it is James’ poem. His synaesthesia sings from the pages in colours and smells and tastes. It makes me wish (a little bit) that I had the same sensations. The paintings are James’ objects of desire, the definition of his life. But it is also his downfall. And for Engales, too.

The ending is hopeful – uplifting, even. With new beginnings hesitantly promised, this is one of the better endings to a novel I’ve read in a while (which, by the way, is a recommendation to read this book in itself). There is a sweetness to this book. It’s not arrogant about art, it’s not too dark that it depresses you, and it is right to be on the hotly anticipated list with its wisdom, its skill with language and colour. An artwork in itself – pick up a copy in May!

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